Excerpts for Flatness and Other Landscapes : Essays


Chapter One


THE FLATNESS


They are thinking about Northern Ohio, about Indiana, about the long stretch through Illinois and on into Iowa. It is flat. The geometry of the fields suggests a map as large as the thing it represents. The squared township roads score the axes of coordinates. The cusp of trees on the horizon, the water tower, the elevator are tokens slid there representing ground taken and held. The only dimension marked by z is the state of dreaming as they drive on the interstates meandering in tangents that seek what the builders of railroads, who were here with rulers first, called a water-level route.

    There are places in the Midwest that are not like this—the limestone hills, the loess bluffs, the forest lakes and sand dunes, the rills and knobs and kettles. But the people who know the place only by driving through it know the flatness. They skim along a grade of least resistance. The interstate defeats their best intentions. I see them starting out, big-hearted and romantic, from the density and the variety of the East to see just how big this country is. They are well read, and they see an expanse as they come out of the green hills and the vista opens up, a true vision now so vast that at night as they drive the vastness can be merely suggested by the farmyard lights that demonstrate plane geometry by their rearranging patterns. And, in the dawn around Sandusky, they have had enough, and they hunker down and drive, looking for the mountains that they know are out there somewhere. They cannot see what is all around them now. A kind of blindness afflicts them, a pathology of the path. The flatness.

    It is flat. I grew up on a plain that was once the floor of a shallow inland sea scoured by four or five glaciers. On the interstate, when I drove from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis, the overpasses scaled above the country roads and railways. On either side of the ascending ramp little right-triangle lakes glistened. The holes, now topped with water, had provided the fill for the overpass ramps illustrating some law of conservation that you can only go as high as you go deep. From the artificial vantage of these overpasses, I could see, yes, for miles to the islands of trees or the yawing barn, a house on a reach. And way off in the distance, the land almost met the paralleling sky, the flat-bottomed clouds, and there, between the land and clouds, hung a strip of air without color that the sun set through.

    It is flat for the people who drive through, but those who live here begin to sense a slight unevenness. As I drove down the perfectly straight highway, I waited for the gentle natural rise, no overpass, like a jet at the moment of take-off, before the climb, just as the front wheels of the plane leave the ground. And then I'd drop back down and cross a bridge over a river, the Wabash, the Salamonie, or the Mississinewa. The bump had been the end moraine of a glacier. The river is still in place from the melting and washout. These ridges are scalloped together on the plain like tidelines on a broad beach, a few extra grains of sand. I know it isn't much, a slight elevation that could be missed if you were fiddling with the radio dial. But to such a scale has my meter been calibrated. Living in a flat country, I began to read the flatness, to feel the slight disturbances in the field, to drive over it by the seat of my pants.

    And on the plain where I grew up, there is a continental divide. Unlike the more famous one in the Rockies, in Indiana it is a matter of a few feet. Two rivers meet in the city of Fort Wayne and the third one they form flows back on the tributaries. It looks strange on a flat map, like a dual-lane highway. The new river heads back north and east paralleling its headwaters going the other way. Rain falling on the east side of Fort Wayne eventually finds its way to the Atlantic. On the west, the rainfall will travel to the Gulf of Mexico. It is a matter of a few feet.

    Growing up there, I tried to imagine continental watersheds sloping away from me. I lived in a neighborhood called North Highlands. Before the developers came up with that name it was known as Hungry Hill because one winter horses couldn't haul food-laden drays up its icy slopes. It isn't much of a hill. But it is another ending of a glacier. It is just high enough so that it is the only part of town that never floods. Since I've been alive, Fort Wayne has had three hundred-year floods. The flooding is due to the flatness. After a heavy rain or a good snowmelt, water everywhere begins to rise, in the rivers, the ditches, the gutters. It pools in sheets on the saturated ground. It can't run off since the ground is level. Instead, it rises. There is a skim of water in the streets. The parks are lakes. The flooding is gradual. Often it takes days. The water is finding a balance, finding the contour that runs through the town like a fault, before it moves. The water keeps rising and spreading. The water, never running very fast in the riverbeds, stops altogether now, quivers at the brim of the old levees like that lip of water a couple of molecules thick that shimmers above the rim of a full glass. Fort Wayne floods are slow disasters with people going to work as usual while others pump their basements or fill sandbags. There is always plenty of warning. There is always nothing to be done. There is not much raging water. Homes are inundated at the same speed it takes to repaint them. And when the owners repaint the houses, they dash a little line on the doorsill to mark the high water of the flood.

    The flatness informs the writing of the Midwest. The flatness of the landscape can serve as a foil, the writing standing out, a kind of Blue Hotel, in opposition to the background. There is enough magical realism to go around here. A friend, Michael Wilkerson, goes so far as to call the Indiana Toll Road the Bermuda Triangle of Highway Travel. It's true. People who drive through the state have stories. They report mysterious breakdowns, extradimensional rest stops, the miraculous appearances of state troopers. In the whiteout of the passage through the flatness, dreaming can take over. The dull colors richen. The corn in the field begins to sparkle like the cellophane corn on the set of the Wizard of Oz. And that movie with its film noir depiction of the Midwest suggests another way of capturing this place.

    I can still remember Danny Kaye introducing the movie on TV, telling the kids at home not to worry, that the black and white of Kansas was just the way they made the picture. Then as now, those grays of the monotonous landscape interested me more than the extravagant color. I have my mirages, but they are nothing fancy—the mirror of water that coats the hot road ahead reflects the flat sky and galvanizes the horizons. For me this Midwest is the perfect setting, this matter of a few degrees, a few feet either way. Here is ground that turns at once into swamp then into sea, each a solid calm surface. Beneath them all is a slight tilt, a tendency really, a bias so subtle you never notice you've crossed a line, that you've reached a crisis, that your whole world has changed.

    I dislike the metaphor of the Heartland. True the Midwest is somewhere near the physical center of the map of America. But the Heartland implies that here, at some exact center, lies something secret, hidden and important, an X for a buried treasure. The Midwest is too big to be seen like that. I think of it more as a web of tissue, a membrane, a skin. And the way I feel about the Midwest is the way my skin feels and the way I feel my own skin. The Midwest as hide, an organ of sense and not power, delicate and coarse at the same time. The Midwest transmits in fields and waves. It is a place of sense. It sometimes differentiates heat and cold, pain and pleasure, but most often it registers the constant bombardment, the monotonous feel of feeling. Living here on the great flat plain teaches you this soft touch. Sensation arrives in huge sheets, stretched tight, layer upon layer, another kind of flood.

    Perhaps I make too much of geology, topography imprinting on our lives. It was the Romantics of the last century who gave us mountains as something beautiful to see instead of impediments to cross. From them too we have inherited "the view." I grew up in a landscape not often painted or photographed. The place is more like the materials of art itself—the stretched canvas and paper. The midwestern landscape is abstract, and our response to the geology of the region might be similar to our response to the contemporary walls of paint in the museums. We are forced to live in our eyes, in the outposts of our consciousness, the borders of our being. Forget the heart. In the flatness, everywhere is surface. This landscape can never take us emotionally in the way smoky crags or crawling oceans can. We stare back at it. Beneath our skins, we begin to disassemble the mechanisms of how we feel. We begin to feel.


FUTURE TENSE


Time is all mixed up here. "Here" is Riverside, Iowa, and the reason Time is all mixed up has to do with the way people here are forced to talk about the town's main attraction. Well, it isn't quite an attraction yet. There is a committee working on that. But what the attraction will be once they get it going is that Riverside, Iowa, is the future birthplace of James T. Kirk. James T. Kirk is a character from Star Trek, a television show about the future that was canceled years ago. This adds to the confusion. People have to talk about the television series in the past tense, fondly, nostalgically. It's over and done, existing in reruns. But the people of this small Johnson County town are planning events that will have happened (is that even a tense?) sometime in the next century.

    By all accounts this was Steve Miller's idea. I spent a rainy spring day looking for Steve Miller to ask him about it—to get the history of this thing that will happen. As I looked for him I visited the sites of importance in the future boyhood life of a made-up boy who would become, in his own future, a starship captain. During that day in Riverside, Iowa, I transported back and forth through this warp in time, but also I traveled through the thin membrane of fact and fiction. I saw what had happened and what will happen and what people had wanted and wished to have happen, to have happened, to have had happen.

    In the consignment store on First Street, I picked through an old cigar box full of yellowing decals and hand-lettered buttons that said things like "Riverside, Iowa: The Future Birthplace of Captain James T. Kirk." The woman who ran the store helped some older women exchange condensed novels for other condensed novels.

    "I've read that one. And that one. And that."

    "That was a good one."

    On the decal was a silhouette of the town—a low bushy outline of the tops of trees with the water tower and the steeple of the Church of the Assumption pushing through. The message was "Trek your way to Riverside, Iowa," in a futuristic organic type. But that skyline was instantly recognizable as that of another town time forgot—sleepy and shaded, holy and watered. Riverside does have a pleasant seat rising in steps from the valley. The river is the English. The abandoned rail bed follows the river's trek. First Street, the highway, a step higher, runs parallel east and west. And above that the red-brick fronts of the buildings of town, the terraced lawns of the white houses above and beyond, and beyond that the massive Assumption and its lesser buildings—convent, rectory, academy, and school—on the very summit of this old round-shouldered hill. It must have been lovely. It must have been obvious when some unremembered town founders saw the place for the first time and founded. This is, this was the place, their place.

    It isn't truly a town that time forgot. That implies that nothing changed, changes, of course. Later, I looked up at the town from a rail siding near the grain elevator in the valley. Sparrows were diving into some spilled and spoiling corn on the ground. The tracks were gone, the roadbed nearly invisible. The stores on First were all gone, the sidewalk still raised wagon-bed high above the road for the easy exchange of goods. There were a few bars. A branch bank. The consignment shop. Rainwater ran down the streets that led up to the church, the heavy clouds seemed a few inches above the steeple's point.

    "It came to him in a bar, I think." The woman who ran the consignment shop was telling me about Steve Miller's idea. "Something had to be done. Look around," she said. She had grown up in Riverside, remembered the farmers coming to town and the Amish in their wagons. "The birthplace is right next door, or will be," she told me. "Last summer, during the first festival, they put up a little marker. I don't know if it made it through the winter. I haven't looked." She said she was still surprised they came—the busloads of strangely dressed people who watch the television show and go to things like this dressed like characters from their favorite episodes. Aliens walked the shattered sidewalks. They wore capes and mail and green makeup. They came from Chicago, a busload. A woman from Los Angeles flew in in her own plane. The campgrounds were guarded by kids carrying ray guns. They bought decals and stickers.

    I could tell she was unsure of the idea. "Something has to be done," she said again.

    "It works, doesn't it?" I said, "I mean, I came because of it, I guess." I was out of season though, she said, laughing a bit. Next week, March 26, would be the actual birthday.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Somewhere in all those episodes of Star Trek there is a mention of Captain Kirk's birth. It took place in Iowa, of course. You fill in the attendant mythology of values that this shorthand would lend to a character, to the character's character—hardworking, honest, independent, loyal. All of it. Steve Miller wrote to the producers of the show and claimed to be Kirk's kin. Sure, why not? they said. Riverside it is. Plans were made then for this annual festival in the summer, part of the schedule of festivals celebrating the harvest of various species of local produce, the circuit of centennials, the founding of railways that no longer survived. All the special days—Norwegian, Swedish, Czech, Dutch. The signs on the outside of town were changed. They once read, "Riverside—where the best begins." Now "Trek" has been substituted for "best," a line painted lightly through the latter so you can see both, hedging. The population is 826.

    There is not one Kirk listed in the Riverside phone book. Most of the names look like German to me. Steve Miller is trying to find a family named Kirk to move to town, the angel Gabriel with an annunciation. That is what the secretary in the city attorney's office told me. "He's trying to get somebody here to change their name. Anything." The attorney is leaning in the doorway of the office professionally involved in the finer points of the statue saga. Steve Miller wants to have a statue built in the park of the young James T. Kirk leaving Riverside for the space academy. William Shatner, who played the character of James T. Kirk, won't give permission to use his likeness since his likeness was, at the time, a policeman on another television show. And the lawyer wonders about this—who owns the likeness of a made-up person, whether they need to ask permission of the actor at all. I can tell he has thought about this in his spare moments. To him and to his secretary all of it is so curious. They tell me to go look at the pile of rocks in the park. That is where the statue will be, of the young Kirk going off to space.

    "Where do they go?" I asked about the young people of Riverside. They are going away, obviously, and their leaving is not commemorated. There is nothing here for them to do. It is literally a sleepy little town, most folks driving up to Iowa City to work, driving back here for bed. As we talk we keep running into the time problem. The town's only claim to fame is something that has yet to happen, that will never happen, that they want in a half-hearted way to make happen.

    There are little statues of Mary housed in little grottoes in many front yards. A Catholic town. The blue of her robes is often bleached and bled to a robin's-egg blue. And on the breasts of some of the figures is a dollop of red, the heart that remembers so much, a spring flower pulsing in the shadows of the brown evergreens. The Church of the Assumption is something. It is on the Registry of Historic Places. The woman in the consignment shop said that people came from all over the countryside to build the church. It is red brick, huge yet functional, vernacular and honest. If it were even older than it is, even though it is registered as historic, maybe people would come to Riverside to look at it and leave a few dollars behind in this town. Mary, above the main door, is at least twice the size of life. She is being taken into heaven whole, her clothes billowing, suggesting a sucking whirlwind, a midwestern twister. Her clothes wrap back around her and cling to her upraised arms. Her clothes are becoming clouds. Her flesh too—clouds, air, pure white heaven.

    I've been told that I can buy a vial of Kirk Dirt. It has been scooped from the birthplace. Steve Miller owns the lot that will one day be the birthplace. As I walked from the city attorney's to the lot that will one day be the birthplace, I did kind of get into the spirit of the thing. I imagined children playing in this alley, which still is a cinder alley. Of course my imaginary children were imagining within their games the people they would become, stopping now and then to rewrite, in elaborate collaboration, the history of their future and starting over again now more confident, more clear about where they were heading.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

    Okay, I admit I've watched Star Trek in its endless reruns. I love the parts where Kirk, the boy from Iowa, rages when his crew has been shanghaied from him. His crew, like Odysseus's men, are always succumbing to the eating of the lotus, easily accepting the paternal and protective care of some alien superior race. And Kirk rages. It never works for him, this future of bliss. He tells us. He tells his crew. He tells the sad-eyed aliens too. Man, he says, must struggle. Human beings must always be improving, perfecting, restless and unsatisfiable. It takes a while for the crew to stop acting like kids, to grow up and act like adults. These grown men in funny outfits. And these children here pretending in my imagination, exactly duplicating the stories they have absorbed from TV. The scripts of television are their scripts. Life is already becoming, will always be becoming, lived somewhere else.

    There were no children in the alleys playing. In the drizzle, I did not look for long for the stick that was supposed to mark the future birthplace. There was junk in all the backyards. Old rose trellises needed painting. Clotheslines sagged with the invisible weight of ghost laundry. Here and there on some rooftops and backyards were the satellite dishes all pointing up to space.

    It is plain, isn't it? Obvious to you now that this town will not survive to the future, to the time, if there will be one, of the miraculous birth. The birth that the rebirth of the town is staked on. Riverside will be lucky to make it deep into this new century. You know it. The people who remain know it. And Steve Miller, wherever he is, maybe even he knows it too.

    Up the road to the west is Kalona, Iowa, another small town. It is thriving. I stopped there for pie, and the cafe was closed, only for remodeling, to expand. The town has two Main Streets. One is for the cars. The other is for buggies and horses. The Amish materialize in the alleyways. Do their business. And disappear. Sure, people come to catch a look at them. The stores all have the Amish culture captured in charms and mementos of impulse purchases, souvenirs of the simple. But the tourist dollar, however large, cannot explain the health of the town. It is not the attraction of the Amish but the Amish themselves who drive the town. When they spend money they spend it here—the dry goods, the blacksmith, the hardware. It is an economy that sustains itself. It is a mistake to say it is living in the past.

    Riverside, a few miles away, is nostalgic for its future. Its scheme for survival is a paradigm of many towns and cities where convention centers and shopping malls are only less-original lures for someone else's expendable income. These developments are models of recreation, not creation. Life is a species of entertainment in this model, not part of a community which sustains and enriches itself and which is a part of a larger community that does likewise.

    Steve Miller, wherever he is, believes, as many of us do, that out there somewhere is a great new universe and that we should all go. Steve Miller is acting to save what is left of his dying town, I am convinced. What is sad is that his hope rests on a birth that never took place and, even in his wildest dreams, never will.

Copyright © 2000 Michael Martone. All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8203-2160-5




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